John Sheahan, the last surviving member of the famous Dubliners, tells David Hennessy about releasing his debut album at the age of 80, why Ronnie Drew wasn’t impressed with the accommodation after one gig years ago and why he can’t understand the ‘mindless’ destruction of a statue in honour of his late bandmate Luke Kelly.
Part of what people refer to as the definitive Dubliners line-up, violinist John Sheahan has sold in excess of 30 million albums worldwide, played Top of the Tops and just last year President Michael D Higgins, Ralph McTell, Damien Dempsey, Imelda May and Glen Hansard came out for his 80th birthday celebration.
And it is at the age of 80 that John has he released his debut solo album entitled Flirting Fiddles.
John told The Irish World: “It’s going great, great reaction to it.
“I suppose most traditional musicians tend to bring out albums of jigs and reels and traditional dance tunes. This one is mainly my own compositions. There’s 16 tracks on it and 15 of them are my own pieces.
“Over the years I played various instrumental tracks on Dubliners albums and for years I’ve been intent on making an album of my own pieces. Dubliners albums kept getting in the way but when I reached the ripe old age of 80, my kids were saying to me, ‘Now dad, this is the right time to do it now’.”
The title Flirting Fiddles refers to John’s interest in a wide range of different musical styles.
“I suppose over the years I’ve been interested in different styles of music. I did a bit of classical training when I was young, then I got into traditional stuff, playing stuff by ear and learning to read music. I always had a curiosity about different styles of music and I think my own compositions have reflected the cross section of different styles I’ve picked up over the years. Some of them have kind of a baroque style. When I was a teenager I got a bit of a feel for swing music and bluegrass music along the way so it features a lot of these different styles.”
John joined The Dubliners in 1964. Although the line-up changed over the years, he played for the most part with Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly, Ciaran Bourke and Barney McKenna. John speaks about them like brothers because their bond was that strong.
“We were like an extended family. There was a great relationship between the different families. When my son Fiachra was being baptised, Luke was his godfather and Barney was the godfather to Felim Drew, Ronnie’s son. Whenever there was a celebration we were all there whether it was a wake or a wedding or whatever was going on. There was a great inter-relationship between us all.
“They’re all gone. I’m the last one. I don’t ponder too much on the sad side of things, I celebrate the fact that we all met and it all happened over those years, a most unusual combination of people to get together and work together. Great memories.
“It’s a real adventure the whole lifetime with the Dubliners. Some great memories and craic went on during the various tours and travelling around the world.”
John and the band played Top of the Pops in 1967 when Seven Drunken Nights made it to number seven in the UK charts. Such mainstream success came as a surprise to the band not only because it was a rare honour for an Irish folk band but also because they had not rated the song high enough for it to be a single.
“We were just recording an album and Seven Drunken Nights was, as far as we were concerned, just another track on the album. Our manager came into the studio and heard the track and he said, ‘That will be your single’. And we thought, ‘Are you crazy?’
“We were with a company called Major Minor Records at the time and it was played on Radio Caroline non-stop at the time. I think it got to number seven in the UK charts to everyone in the band’s amazement.”
It was in 1987 the band were back on Top of the Pops with their version of The Irish Rover that featured The Pogues.
“And twenty years later we did a song with the Pogues that got back into the charts.”
To celebrate the milestone of the band’s 25th anniversary, they joined Shane MacGowan and his band in the studio which just happened to be the same studio they had been in 20 years previously.
“A young assistant floor manager asked, ‘Mr Drew, would you like me to show you around the studio?’ Ronnie just said, ‘I was here before you were born, son’.
“After the gig with The Pogues when we came back into Dublin airport the next morning there was a few television cameras there and a bit of a fuss about us being back on Top of the Pops. One of the reporters says, ‘Well Barney, we saw you on Top of the Pops last night. What does it feel like to be a star?’
Barney says, ‘I’m over the moon’. Barney came out with some amazing ones.
“We did a big gig in Derry one time and afterwards Barney insisted he would drive because Ronnie wasn’t fit to be driving but Barney nearly as bad. They were stopped by the RUC. The officer said, ‘Mr McKenna, I have reason to believe you’re not fit to be driving this car. You’re under the influence’. And Barney said, ‘You think I’m bad? Have a look at the fella in the back seat who was going to drive’.
“For their safety they took them up to the station and put them in a cell. Ronnie woke up in the middle of night and he’s looking around at this concrete floor and the straw mattress and goes, ‘What kind of a f**king hotel is this we’re booked into?’
Barney says to him, ‘This is not a hotel. You’re in jail. Now sing the Auld Triangle, ya bollix’.”
John probably did not foresee releasing his debut album in a pandemic. How has he coped with the lockdown? “Well we’ve conformed to the general advice about cocooning. We haven’t been outside the gate of the house in eleven weeks now. I’m kind of enjoying it in a different way. It’s like there’s an officially sanctioned bit of a doss, a lazy time when nobody can criticise you for being lazy.
“I play music every day. I’m still learning new tunes every day and composing different pieces, wriing bits of poetry. I think it keeps you young and it keeps the mind active.
“I have five brothers and I keep in touch with them with Zooming and Skyping and FaceTiming and all that craic. I have a grandson who is learning the fiddle so I give him lessons on FaceTime a couple of times a week and it’s working out very well using modern technology for things like that.
“At the weekends we all get together on the one screen, our four children, our five grandchildren and we play a quiz game and things like that. It’s fair compensation for not being able to meet face-to-face.”
John is also a published poet with the book Fiddle Dreams.
It was reported last month that a statue in honour of John’s late bandmate Luke Kelly had been vandalised for a fifth time.
“I wonder what’s going on in those people’s heads. It’s a senseless act really to deface any public monument, I mean it belongs to everybody. For somebody to come along and deface it it’s just a mindless act as far as I can see.
“I think it’s four or five times now it’s happened to that statue. There was a suggestion maybe it should be moved but it’s where he lived.”
He may be making the most of lockdown but John can’t wait until playing live is permitted again. “I’m absolutely looking forward to getting back and doing a few gigs. I have some bookings taken for next January. Hopefully we’ll back to some sort of normality by then.”
Flirting Fiddles is out now.